Who Are the Judicial Activists Now?
The right’s charge of “judicial activism” has dominated debates for years. But soon, with regard to gay marriage, it just isn’t going to fly.
As is regularly the case in American politics, you have to hand it to Ted Cruz: His reaction to the Supreme Court’s order on same-sex marriage was the best one I came across Monday for sheer outrage-iness. “Judicial activism at its worst!” he thundered (okay, the exclamation point is mine). This, remember, in response to an inaction. The Court did exactly nothing. And now that’s judicial activism.
In fact, the Court took a pass, one presumes, because there weren’t two circuit-court decisions before it that presented conflicting legal interpretations of statute. In the absence of such a conflict, the Court did exactly what most experts I’ve read and spoken to over the last few months predicted it would do. But to Cruz, it’s “astonishing.” Ditto that the Court acted (or in-acted) “without providing any explanation whatsoever.” Which it never does in such instances, but never mind.
People like Cruz will never stop screaming judicial activism. No, wait: They will stop screaming judicial activism, at least on the question of same-sex marriage; and they will stop doing so sooner later than later. This will constitute a major victory for the forces of light, one very much worth marking and thinking back over.
Ever since, well, Brown v. Board of Education, and probably before, conservatives have complained about judges making law against the will of the majority of voters. The critique extends into nearly every little crevice and lacuna of our civic life. Roe v. Wade was legislating from the bench; affirmative action; of course taking God out of the classroom; but basically anything any court did that conservatives didn’t approve of.
And let’s admit it—on at least the abstract level, the complaint has often had merit. I mean, there can be little doubt that public opinion in Dixie in 1954 opposed the integration of the schools. So the Court of 1954 was indeed making law from the bench. And thank God for it, since the problem is that public opinion was wrong. Not just wrong like “I think I’m not putting enough salt in my grits” wrong, but immorally wrong. What’s a court to do in such a case? Many forests have been sacrificed so that various scholars could take up this question, but the answer is really quite short and simple: The right thing.
And so liberalism has lived now with decades of such criticisms from conservatives, with the understanding that it’s far better to have won the right in question from a court than not to have won it at all—and the understanding that out there in America, yes, the backlash against these judges and the policies that grew from their decisions was probably brewing.
But same-sex marriage is different for two reasons. First, the amazing and oft-commented upon speed at which public opinion has flipped. And second, the fact that if the legal consensus can be said to be coming down on one side or the other, it’s clearly coming down on the side of same-sexers having the same constitutional matrimonial rights that the rest of us have. When federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah say it, it ain’t judicial activism, folks. It’s, you know, the more-or-less-impossible-to-deny law.
So the process by which same-sex marriage has advanced in this country hasn’t been overwhelmingly judicial at all. Until the Court’s announcement Monday, in fact, the tally was that gay marriage became legal by court decision in 13 states, and by the will of the people in 11 (legislative action in eight, popular referendum in three). And in most of the states where the change happened through the courts, the issue is decreasing in controversy, and public opinion is coming along.
You may remember that Iowa was the first unexpected heartland state where the state Supreme Court made gay marriage legal, back in 2009. It’s true that three judges who so ruled were removed from the bench in judicial retention elections in 2010. But by 2012, when the “values” crowd went after a fourth, they walked away scalpless: Judge David Wiggins retained his seat by a landslide 10-point margin. The temperature had cooled. Today, polling shows that public opinion in the state is still divided on same-sex marriage but is firmly against any kind of state constitutional amendment that would ban the practice.
So now, after what the Court did Monday, same-sex marriage is going to extend into 11 new states. It seems fair to say that majorities are against gay marriage in most of these states (the aforementioned Utah and Oklahoma, plus Kansas, Indiana, West Virginia, and the Carolinas). We’re going to see the usual skirmishes and hear the predictable sound bites. In political terms, if you’re a liberal who wants to read the tea leaves, keep an eye trained on the North Carolina Senate race.
Incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is steadily but narrowly leading GOP challenger Thom Tillis. Hagan backs same-sex marriage. But the state voted overwhelmingly against it two years ago in a referendum. And now, as a part of the Fourth Judicial Circuit, North Carolina is about to have the sinful practice foisted on it. Public opinion in the state still runs strongly against same-sex marriage. I think we can reasonably expect Tillis to double down on the issue, and it would be horrible to see Hagan lose because of it.
It’ll take time in these states, but the same thing will happen in them as is happening in Iowa. People will adjust. Gay couples will marry. Straight couples will see that their own marriages were somehow not sullied after all.
This is the core dilemma for conservatives on same-sex marriage: The more widespread its practice, the more accepted it becomes. This is the exact opposite of abortion and affirmative action, two red-hot issues on which the right has used the “judicial activism” charge to great effect in recent history. If you think abortion is murder, then the more widespread its practice, the more aghast you are. If you oppose racial preferences, then ditto. But that isn’t how same-sex marriage works. It takes nothing away from heterosexual couples, or for that matter anyone.
Eventually, the Supreme Court will rule 5-4 (with Kennedy) or maybe even 6-3 (with Roberts—not completely impossible) in favor of gay marriage, because the law is clear, and because the Court isn’t going to tell many thousands of married couples in 30 states that they’re suddenly not married. Judicial activism? No. Just the right thing. The judicial activists will be those, led by their godhead Scalia, who will try to invent new ways to march backwards while pretending that they themselves aren’t trying to dictate morality from the bench. And the charge of judicial activism, which hurt liberalism because it resonated with a resentment that millions of average Americans felt, will lose its sting soon enough.